How might the Obama Administration best respond to wave after wave of “NSA revelations” that roil and cloud the political waters?
Ironically, almost none of Edward Snowden’s leaks — or those of Julian Assange — revealed anything that was illegal per se. What they have done is stir a too-long delayed argument over what should be legal! Specifically, the Patriot Act and the ratchet effect on surveillance that always happens when a country enters a state of panic. The post-9/11 alarm is finally fading and — (barring some new, panic-inducing event) — elements of the Patriot Act and pervasive surveillance are now up for public debate.
See page 206* of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to Choose between Privacy and Freedom? (1997) — where this cycle of terrorism and increased government surveillance was predicted in precise — and rather creepy — detail.
Elsewhere, I recently dissected and appraised the forty-two suggested reforms that a commission presented to President Obama, many of which he has instituted or sent to Congress. Here I want to focus on one important, trust-building measure that would make a huge difference.
== Meeting the needs of the Public and the PPC ==
As expected, most of the current argument is about the wrong side of the issue — mewling plaints calling to prevent society’s elites (like the NSA or Google) from seeing — an effort that is fated to be futile, condemned to absurdity by Moore’s Law.
But at last there is talk also of doing what will work — improving the degree to which the citizenry can supervise and have confidence that government remains essentially a servant of the people.
The main sticking point is over the need that members of the Professional Protector Caste (PPC) have for tactical secrecy, or the ability to conceal their operations from villains and adversaries. This need is very strong, but so is that of citizens to feel assured that secrecy remains only tactical, short-term and pragmatic, never an excuse for permanent avoidance of accountability.
I have over the years offered several innovations that might achieve a win-win — securing both tactical shadows for the PPC to be effective, while ensuring accountability that at least partially reassures the public. Foremost among these proposals would be to create the office of Inspector General of the United States (IGUS).
IGUS could be established with a one-page law that simply transfers all of the inspectors general in every agency and department to an independent service under a figure of noted rectitude, whose staff might then perform their functions without the inherent conflict of interest that stymies so many IGs. IGUS members would be trained in both confidentiality and prim skepticism on the taxpayers’ behalf, allowing PPC agencies to continue tactically secret investigations, but always with the peoples’ delegated gaze over their shoulders.
“We understand that public confidence is shaken and this move should help to restore it while preventing the worst and most perniciously chronic abuses… while at the same time allowing our skilled public protectors to continue doing their important jobs. It is also the quickest way to do this, requiring the fewest changes in law.”
Will this satisfy everybody? Of course not… nor should it! Indeed, I do not consider IGUS to be enough. I have several more proposals that would work in parallel with IGUS, so that in-sum we all can truly be sure that our watch dogs remain loyal (if fierce) dogs, and never wolves.
Nevertheless, IGUS would be a good start. And it would allow the Administration to be seen acting vigorously, in a forward, pro-active direction that BOTH enhances public trust and allows our agencies to do their jobs.
My IGUS proposal was written in greater detail as one of two dozen “Suggestions for the Incoming Obama Administration” way back in 2008. Alas, not one of them got to anyone’s ear. C’est la vie.
Still, you can read about it here: Free the Inspectors General!
== Political Miscellany ==
Lying with Data: Fox viewers in the family? Show them this chart that appeared on their news” network and ask if they can explain why almost no American scientists are republican, anymore. See this appraisal, also: The Statisticians at Fox News use classic and novel graphical techniques to lead with data.
*Here’s an image of page 206 of The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force us to choose between Privacy and Freedom?.